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Why the US Is the Domino's of Aid Delivery

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 29, 1996


In the bad old days of the cold war, to be a military power was to be able to lob a nuclear warhead across a continent or two.

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But in the new world of regional conflict and humanitarian rescues, power means being able to land aid workers, troops to support them, food, fuel, jeeps, trucks, bulldozers, medical clinics, communications equipment, and a water purification system the size of an M-1 tank on a narrow, muddy runway in a jungle - quickly.

Only the United States can do it, and that's why Washington can call the shots on sending an international force to Zaire.

Canada, charged by the United Nations to organize a military force to support relief workers aiding thousands of hungry refugees in Zaire, scaled down its recommendations for the mission this week in the face of US objections. Instead, Canada proposed to set up air drops of food and air reconnaissance from a base in nearby Uganda.

Just how many refugees - mainly Hutus from Rwanda - need help remains in dispute. Estimates range from 150,000 to 700,000 in need, with the US endorsing the low end of that range. France and Belgium, both of which have historic and colonial ties in the region, cite higher figures and insist an international force is essential.

But even France insists that it will not participate in any mission unless the US also joins.

The US brings heavy political clout to the table as the world's only superpower. But it also brings technical capacity to relief operations that no other country can match, especially in air lift, intelligence, and communications.

As Europeans continue to slash defense budgets to lower public deficits, that technical gap with the US is getting larger, defense analysts say.

"The US has provided the overwhelming bulk of airlift and logistical capability for all major United Nations peacekeeping and relief operations," says Philip Mitchell, defense analyst for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Most of the world has always looked to the US as the key to a large-scale relief or peacekeeping operation. That was one of the major findings of Bosnia.

"US communication facilities are absolutely vital to link various capitals, military units, and nationalities in such an operation. France knows this as well as anybody, since it has used US airlift capability for some of its own Central African operations and to get French troops at short notice to some of its own colonies, such as Chad."

One example of the US technical edge in moving people and cargo is the C-17 Globemaster III military transport plane, built by the St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas Corp., and currently available only to the US Air Force.

The C-17 can carry three armored vehicles or 85 tons of food and cargo, land on a short, rugged airfield in less than 3,000 feet, and unload 2-1/2 times faster than any other airlifter. Since it can refuel in the air and at night, it can also go anywhere in the world. President Clinton has referred to it as "the world's best moving van."